UKAMAU

Director: Jorge Sanjinés
Year: 1966
Country: Bolivia

This is my first entry from South America since Fuego (Argentina), and once again I’ve delved into the past to find a local classic, rather than a more recent film. Ukamau, Aymaran for “And So it Is”, is the first feature-film by Jorge Sanjinés, who is still working in film as I write this entry.

Andrés and Sabina are an Indigenous Aymara couple living in the Bolivian Andes. Together they eke out a meager but sufficient living from their farm by a lake. In the opening scene we see Andrés take their goods to market across the lake, sharing a joke with Sabina as he leaves.

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Andrés departs by rowboat across the lake.

While Andrés is away, however, the sinister Mestizo (mixed-race) landowner for whom they work pays a visit to the farm. Finding Sabina alone, he rapes and murders her. From here on Ukamau is a tale of revenge, as Andrés pursues Ramos across the country in search of justice. The film builds steadily to a violent confrontation between the two men, from which only one can walk away.

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Sabina is visited by the villainous Rosendo Ramos

Perhaps the most striking thing about Ukamau is Sanjinés’ distinctive visual style. It has often been compared to European art cinema, but I also found a strong resemblance to the cinematography of Sergio Leone’s spaghetti westerns. Like Leone, Sanjinés makes frequent use of extreme closeups of eyes and lips, and then contrasts them with long shots of characters silhouetted against empty landscapes. Sanjinés’s depiction of violence is also similar to that found in films like The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly, with long, drawn-out periods of suspenseful buildup followed by a brief flash of action.

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Andrés rides through some stunning Andean scenery in search of vengeance.

At a short, snappy 72 minutes, Ukamau is brief, shocking, and violent. Sanjinés is well known for the political agenda and revolutionary, anti-colonial themes that have been studied in his films, and watching Ukamau it’s clear that these are present even in his earliest work. Andrés is an everyman hero from an oppressed ethnic group and an oppressed class. The part-European villain Ramos is a frequent churchgoer, yet a brutish drunkard, rapist, and murderer. Thus he serves as a symbol of European colonial aggression, hypocrisy, and exploitation of Indigenous South Americans. It may come across as bitter and bleak, but there’s a feverish energy and tension that burns through even Ukamau’s slowest moments, which makes it a compelling and highly recommended watch.

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